Developer, environmentalists agree on Hollis estate sale

In theory, land developers and conservationists operate at cross purposes: One buys land hoping to sell it for a profit, while the other makes a purchase intending to preserve open space for future generations. In practice, that isn’t always the case. Take, for example, the recent sale of Woodmont East Orchards, pristine farmland north of Silver Lake on Route 122.

Developers Steven and Robert Moheban, operating as Sky Orchard Realty Trust, purchased the 90-acre parcel last fall, hoping to sell the property to a single owner who would build a home on the remote hilltop, perhaps bringing horses to keep and to ride there.

The town’s land-protection study committee had a similar aim, although its attempts to acquire funding to buy the land for the town didn’t materialize.

The land-protection group had tried to raise enough money through government grants and donations to buy the land and preserve it as conservation land.

The purchase, moreover, would have added to the 180 acres in the west orchards the town bought four years ago.

But the town was unable to raise enough money quickly enough to meet the needs of the owners, the Lievens family.

For more than 80 years, the east and west orchards on either side of Route 122 have been used to grow apples. Three generations of the Lievens family grew apples there until the end of last year, when, after selling the property to the Mohebans, they consolidated their business in Londonderry.

Recently, the Mohebans leased a section of the farmland to Lanni Orchards, a Massachusetts apple grower that will continue the Woodmont Orchards operation under the Lanni name.

After the sale, members of the land-protection group met with the developer to ask about the plan for the site.

As it turned out, the two groups found themselves standing on common ground: Both were interested in preserving the lovely orchards and fields. And both agreed that the property – which is listed online for $3.25 million – with its panoramic hilltop view, remote access and precious quiet would be particularly attractive to someone with horses.

“We’re not builders, and we wanted to keep as much as possible in productive farming,” said Steven Moheban, who owns the development company with his father, Robert, a retired Nashua surgeon.

This wasn’t the first time the Mohebans had purchased open space with an eye toward land preservation as part of their development plans.

In 2004, they bought the last working dairy farm in Wilton, working with the town, state and federal governments to secure funding to establish conservation easements there.

“If I have a choice, a zillion houses or this, I prefer to sell this to one person,” Steven Moheban said during a recent tour of the property by truck.

If a single buyer can’t be found, Moheban would consider subdividing the property into about a half-dozen lots.

In a few days, Frank Destito, the Mohebans’ real-estate agent, will place a “for sale” sign on the property within view of passing motorists, hoping to attract attention and a prospective buyer.

Meanwhile, both developer and the members of the town’s land-protection study committee are hoping for the same thing: a single buyer who wants to build a home on the hilltop.

“They’d have their little slice of heaven,” Destito said.

And so would the town, since such a purchase would preserve both the open space and the views.

While passing motorists are familiar with the rows of graceful apple trees arranged like dancers in the orchards, few have taken the dirt path to the crest of the hill where 360-degree views offer a glimpse of Boston to the south and the mountains to the west.

The parcel is bordered on one side by the town forest and on another by a stand of birch trees that miraculously survived December’s ice storm.

The land, including the 180 acres across the road known as Woodmont West, has been an active apple farm since 1920.

The iconic icehouse, demolished last year and rebuilt in replica, is situated in the west orchards, as are several other weathered farm buildings, visible from the top of the Moheban property.

“You drive by and say, ‘What a beautiful sight it is,’ ” said Destito, who was taking a truck tour with several members of the land-protection group on a recent morning.

A hawk soared in the gray-blue sky. The wind whistled through the naked trees like a toothless musician playing a harmonica.

“The term is ‘sublime,’ ” Destito said.

To the south, a stand of birch trees stood like a line of toy soldiers.

The border to the east was guarded by thick band of towering pines.

“At night, you can see the stars,” Destito said. “There’s no light pollution.”